A slip in the ratings

Forbes.com is out with its Most Livable Cities list again, and two-time Grand Champeen Pittsburgh has slipped to No. 10. Here are the 15 Most Livable Cities, with some comments from a former New Englander and 15-year (nearly) Pittsburgher:

15. Little Rock, Ark.
14. Peabody, Mass.
13. Madison, Wis.
12. Harrisburg, Pa. (Did NOT see that coming.)
11. Denver, Colo.
10. Pittsburgh, Pa. (Still a strong contender on the quality of its culture and low crime and unemployment.)
9. Worcester, Mass. (Really? Have you been to Worcester, Mass.? Kind of a shocker it could beat da 'Burgh. Fifteen years ago, it was considered a bit of an armpit; it now seems to have worked its way up to a pleasantly fit and uncallused elbow. It's much smaller than Pittsburgh, but it also gets good marks for culture, has very low crime and an outstandingly low unemployment rate. So: armpit with jobs = elbow.)
8. Baltimore, Md. (The Pittsburgh of the East Coast: about the same size, also does well in the realms of culture and unemployment rate, has a much higher cost of living but offsets that with strong income growth, something we don't score well on in Pittsburgh.)
7. Cambridge, Mass. (A perennial heavy hitter in quality of life. Always won hands down when I lived in New Haven, which couldn't compete at all. Great culture, low crime, but the cost of living pretty much demands a degree from Harvard, and not in social work.)
6. Oklahoma City, Okla.
5. Tulsa, Okla. (Interesting. Arkansas and Oklahoma are real players in this game.)
4. Stamford, Conn. (This is technically listed as the Stamford/Bridgeport/Norwalk MSA, but I don't think any sane person would list Bridgeport as the fourth Most Livable City. Clearly, it is riding Stamford's and Norwalk's coattails, and quite heavily too. Stamford is small and has a punishing cost of living, but it offers good cultural amenities and, despite Bridgeport's contribution, very low crime.)
3. Des Moines. (Yes. We've been trounced by Des Moines. More analysis of that in a moment.)
2. Bethesda, Md. (Another city with great culture, low crime, low unemployment and income growth that offsets its steep cost of living.)
1. Portland, Me.

Portland is a small city whose long and frigid winters have not kept it from having HUGE income growth, very low unemployment, low crime and favorable marks for culture. I also remember reading recently that it is one of the best cities in the country for childless singles in their 30s and 40s. Again, I must point out that bad weather is not helpful, but: Madison, Denver, Baltimore, Stamford, Bethesda, Portland and three cities in Massachusetts. Life is tough. Buy mittens.

As for Des Moines, like Pittsburgh a perennial punchline and synonymous elsewhere with "dull" or "nowheresville," I looked closely at Forbes' numbers to see why someplace in Iowa could be judged more livable than the 'Burgh.

Pittsburgh scores better on cost of living (yes, it's cheaper here than in Des Moines) and culture, and scores MUCH better on crime rate. But where Des Moines leaves us behind is in slightly lower unemployment and MUCH higher income growth.

So what my typically slapdash and unscientific analysis of Forbes' questionable methodology suggests is something I think we already knew: We've got so many of our ducks in a row, as a city. All we need to really flourish is jobs -- that actually pay.


17 Responses to "A slip in the ratings"

illyrias said... 4/06/2009 10:26 AM

Ha! As someone who fled to Pittsburgh from the Stamford/Norwalk/Bridgeport MSA kicking and screaming, I've got to say that one surprises me. But clearly a lot of people think the Stepford Wives / Revolutionary Road life is simply fabulous.

Very interesting that "high income growth" makes a city most livable. Is this statistic given more importance this year now with the state of the economy? Though you'd think that the low-cost-of-living would also be increased in importance which doesn't seem the case from this list.

Anonymous said... 4/06/2009 12:57 PM

I've lived in Pittsburgh, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas and New Haven. I would rank Pittsburgh dead last on the list of places I've lived. The vaunted low cost of living is a sham. While housing prices are indeed low, the price of almost everything else is either the same or higher. Also, the low housing prices are offset by extremely high property taxes. I would rather pay a higher mortgage payment and build equity in my home than pay a low mortgage and high taxes.
What you also have to consider is the lower pay rate in "da Burgh." First year law firm associates are lucky to start at $145,000 in Pittsburgh while the other cities pay $160,000. Even if you get that $145,000 a year salary your pay does not increase much from year to year afterwards, compared to other cities.
Culturally, Pittsburgh is an isolated island locked in the year1987. (It is not surprising that Adventureland was filmed there.) Styx, REO Speedwagon and the Mullett are still very popular. Tune into DVE, they are still playing the same stuff they did when I lived there in the 80's. Pittsburgh, the only place on earth that Lynyrd Skynyrd plays to sold out audiences.
Finally, I find it amusing that Pittsburghers need these rankings to make themselves feel good about home.

Bruce said... 4/06/2009 7:45 PM

I like the info. I wonder if they considered we were also just listed in list of Best Cities to retire in...Pittsburgh was number 7. I just started a Pittsburgh Site (www.networkpittsburgh.com) and I am looking for good content like this to add.

Pittsburgh Conservative said... 4/07/2009 10:46 AM

I think that Pittsburgh's economy, with its heavy reliance upon government and healthcare sectors and their notoriously low wages is directly tied to the low housing prices/low cost of living. It's interesting that Anon used the lawyer example, since I recently used the same and it is one of the few areas where local salaries have roughly tracked national salaries. A big firm first-year lawyer in Pittsburgh will live very well relative to peers in DC or NYC. Without that tracking, however, low cost of living coupled with low salaries simply means that you pay less but also make less. Roughly equivalent to living everywhere else, no?

Jefferson Provost said... 4/07/2009 9:26 PM

I wonder if those cost-of-living measurements honestly account for the fact that many things are not locally priced anymore. Thanks to internet shopping, many many items now cost the same no matter where you live.

From what I've seen, many Pittsburgh employers tend to scale their pay down in proportion to the cost-of-living difference, which means that after paying local living expenses (housing, food, transportation), employees have less money left over to buy things like TVs, music, books and movies, or anything else that can be bought on-line for the same price everywhere. They also have to contribute a larger proportion of their salary to their retirement fund in order to get the same absolute contribution.

When you add in the relative historical weakness in Pittsburgh's job market, I am unconvinced that Pittsburgh's low cost-of-living is a big win for anyone.

Mike Madison said... 4/07/2009 9:40 PM

Thanks for dodging the usual "Iowa? You've got to be kidding!" bullet. As someone who has spent a lot of time in that state, in Des Moines and elsewhere, the ranking isn't a surprise -- whatever the validity of the methods.

Jerry said... 4/08/2009 4:01 PM

Anonymous 4/6 12:57 -- can you comment on why you stay in Pittsburgh, then (if you're still actually here)? I'm not picking a fight, I'm just wondering what your counterbalance is for your wholly negative image of the city.

Ed said... 4/09/2009 1:22 PM

Although the Anonymous 12:57 post is a bit harsh, many of the points made ring true, particularly those relating to the high property tax structure and the relative pay scale for post college employment. I grew up in Pittsburgh, left 20 years ago and just recently moved back after living in OH, Chicago, Kansas City, and Bethesda MD. My experience is that after factoring in Pittsburgh region's incredibly high property tax rates with the quality of public schools and alternative employment opportunities (eg, what happens if I lose my job?), Pittsburgh isn't at the top of my list from a cost/value perspective. But, those issues weren't the primary driver of my choice to move back and I still think that Pittsburgh is a great city to live in (even after factoring in the mullets, DVE, 'n@).

Anonymous said... 4/10/2009 9:53 AM

To "Jerry." I no longer live in Pittsburgh. After graduating from law school I accepted an offer from a Boston law firm. My negative image of Pittsburgh comes from my experiences living there. Even though I graduated near the top of my class in law school and I hold a PhD from an Ivy, it was impossible to get a decent job in Pittsburgh. (One offer and I had to beg to get it.) In contrast, I got job offers from almost every law firm that I applied to in NYC, Boston and San Francisco. The firm whose offer I finally accepted had several partners call me at home to convince me to join their firm. So- stay in a place where the firm was lukewarm about me at best or leave and join a firm that actively recruited me? Not a hard choice.
"Pittsburgh Conservative" thinks that Pittsburgh law pays comparative salaries. This is not true. You can start out at $145K a year (if you are lucky, more likely you will start around $90K-$125K) but after 5 years you will not be making more than $160K. In NYC or Boston in comparison, you start at $160K and after 5 years you are going to make $250K. Also, in good years you are going to get a LARGE bonus (second year associates typically get $32K) In Pittsburgh, you are lucky to get a bonus and even then it is one or two thousand dollars. It may seem I am obsessed with money, but that is a big aspect in cost of living.
Things aren't much better outside the law field. When I first moved to Pittsburgh I worked at a local Biotech company. They paid me $75K a year. In contrast, I was getting paid $175K a year in California doing the same job. Again, the story was- "well the cost of living is lower here in Pittsburgh so we will just pay you less." The only reason I accepted such a lousy salary was that I wanted to live here to be closer to my parents. But what I found out was, cars, food, gasoline, electricity, clothing, essentially everything but housing costs the same if not more.
Pittsburgh can't compete in high tech or biotech because there are few people currently living in high tech and biotech hotbeds who will be willing to leave and move to Pittsburgh only to make less money.
Yes housing prices are lower in Pittsburgh. But when the day comes to sell your house it will be 1) difficult to sell and 2) you won't get much for it. After you sell your Pittsburgh house, you are stuck in the Burgh because you can't afford a house anywhere else (unless you were able to save a lot of money on the side). That is why there are a million OLD people in Pittsburgh. They can't leave. They would love to move to Florida but if they sell their $100K home, they can't afford anything in Florida or Arizona. When I sell my Boston home 25 years from now I will be able to move anywhere I wish to live because I have been building equity in something that 1) will be relatively easy to sell and 2) worth more than I paid for it.
If you are happy about living in Pittsburgh, more power to you. For the reasons stated, it just isn't for me. I left and am very happy I did so.
I admit the comment about mulletts was an uncalled for cheap shot. Actually the mullett seemed to die out in Pittsburgh about 4 years ago.

Anonymous said... 4/10/2009 8:05 PM

hey guys, at least pittsburgh made it into a video game (a very popular one at that):


check out the screenshots...if this doesn't say "liveable"....well, i'll leave it at that.

Anonymous said... 4/12/2009 9:46 PM

God almighty, did we just go through a mega-screen from a spoiled Ivy Leaguer who is wounded that Pittsburgh failed to kiss his arse and give him more than $145 k for his first year of work? Grow the fuck up, already. You live in a town to become part of its culture, and if the culture of greed here does not suit you, please, by all means, keep the hell away. It's hard enough sharing the town with Jeff Romoff and Dick Scaife without having to cater to some leftover from a John Cheever novel.

Vannevar said... 4/12/2009 10:53 PM

Pittsburgh is a great town if you work for the federal government. Say you're a GS-x. You'll make (roughly) the same wherever you live: San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh.

There is a variation in calculated locality pay (Pittsburgh is 12% of base pay, the upper end is 25% of base, yeilding a range of 13%), but I think that's not too significant.

From an economic perspective, who would leave Pittsburgh for New York for a 13% increase?

There's a real growth of higher level Fed jobs in Altoona and Johnstown. That's a combination of Murtha and the DC-types realizing they can locate there, all their people are happy, and they can still drive into DC for key meetings.

Jerry said... 4/13/2009 3:29 PM

Anonymous 4/10 9:53:

Umm, OK, so "family," then. Glad you've found a place that you don't hate so much.

Conservative Mountaineer said... 4/13/2009 5:56 PM

Anon 04/10 9:53:

Think it's bad for attorneys? Try being a Finance professional (CPA with MBA from Top 10 school) that doesn't have undergrad from Pitt or Penn State or prior experience with Westinghouse Credit. Finance salaries here are atrocious and that's IF you can get an entree to a good job. Lotsa luck.

I actually was offered a position with one of my partner's portfolio companies for - get this - $60,000.. plus a 1-1/4 hour drive each way. Needless to say, I didn't take this 'golden opportunity'. While I make upper 5-figures now, I haven't had a raise in +7 years.. that whole 'cost of living issue' combined with 'you're an owner' shtick.

The ONLY reason I'm here right now is my daughter's college education. I simply cannot just leave even though I want to.

MH said... 4/13/2009 10:23 PM

You don't need to convince me about the low pay rates in Pittsburgh. Even in the field of swiping public funds for personal gain, a field in which many locals have been working for years, we don't compare to even the Eastern parts of PA. Look at what Fumo got. Or what those judges (Ciavarella and Conahan) got for sending kids up the river. Now compare that to what Twanda Carlisle was able to get. Maybe Veon was getting a comparable salary, but we won't know for a while yet and he's pretty far out of the Pittsburgh.

And, that's just the in-state comparisons. Look at what the people running AIG took without even the risk of jail.

So vote 'Yes' on Prop 3482 ("Butlers and private jets for western PA officials").

Anonymous said... 4/14/2009 9:24 AM

Proletariat flashed by naked emperor, goes about business as cries of,e "but the water was cold!" fade into background. Film at 11...

Jefferson Provost said... 4/14/2009 11:11 AM

Anonymous 4/12 9:46 illustrates for us in one short paragraph why Pittsburgh still has so far to go in economic development.

People who want to earn more are greedy bastards! Prefer to work at a company that appreciates your talents? Grow up already! Got a Ph.D. in bioscience and JD? We don't need your kind around here!

(You're welcome to come to Seattle, though...)

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